Cutting into journalism’s quick is a cut too far

This week dozens of experienced, dedicated and skilled journalists across the country will be walking out of their newsrooms for the last time as the latest round of Postmedia buyouts (aka cost cutting) takes effect. This time they’re chipping deep into journalism’s quick.

The bylines departing are some of the most recognizable in their markets. They’re the pillars of their papers who’ve been telling the stories and taking the photos in their communities for decades. They know every nook and cranny of their beat, they know exactly who to call, where to dig. They are trusted, by sources and by readers.

But for the corporation that employs them, they are a drag on the bottom line that is plummeting further and further towards the abyss. They are senior staffers, and that means they’re expensive. It’s much cheaper to fill the ever-shrinking spaces between the fewer and fewer ads with quick-hit stories pumped out by disposable J-school grads who will also find themselves cast aside when they’re deemed too expensive. That is, if their papers even last that long.

Because as much as newspaper publishers like to think their august front page banner is their brand, the relationship with readers and advertisers is forged by the reporters, photographers and editors who toil for that banner. Diminish them, you diminish the brand, weaken your connection to the community. Until one day readers wake up and decide they’re not getting much for their subscription dollar anymore. And advertisers realize they’re being sold empty promises.

Almost to a fault, the departing journalists are putting a hopeful face on the future. They’re writing all the right things about an industry turned upside-down, struggling to figure out a way to turn itself around, trying new things, forging new paths to retain their relevance.

Their colleagues who left before them wrote similar words. So did those in the round of buyouts before that, and so on.

Yet here we are, with no end to the cost-cutting in sight. Until there’s no-one left to cut.

This round of names I grew up with, bylines I sometimes encountered on the job during my own 31-year career as a journalist that was truncated by the closure of my paper, is feeling perilously close to that end.

Good luck to everyone walking out of their newsroom for the last time. You dedicated yourself to telling stories that might not otherwise get told. You informed and enriched your communities. You made us smile and wrenched our hearts. Thank you!

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Keeping your head down!

Keeping your head down on the bike is how you power through rough weather, or a bonk on the third mountain climb of the day.

This winter, it’s a matter of survival.

It’s been an extraordinary off-season. After a run of virtually snowless winters, we were hit hard in early December by three consecutive storms. The thaws that usually wash those snows away never really happened. Instead we descended into a weeks-long deep freeze that iced the land and roads and bike paths.

Now that temperatures have moderated, and most of the snow and ice has melted away, we’re finally able to safely get back on our bikes. But keep your head down and your eyes on the pavement ahead!

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist journalist
Blue skies and warmer temperatures have afforded some welcome opportunities to get back on the bike.

Because the consequence of our wintry weather is streets and bike lanes cratered with crumbling asphalt, gaping potholes, yawning sinkholes. A moment’s inattention can collapse a front wheel, pitch a daydreaming rider over the handlebars, destroy a season.

The work crews are out there, doing what they can to patch the pocked pavement. But they can’t keep up with the structural failings. The repeating cycle of freezes, brief thaws and subsequent deep-freezes expanded cracks into fissures, pocks into potholes. And with more cold temperatures forecast, it’s only going to get worse.

Still, a couple of weeks of warmer weather has afforded some chances to ride. The legs are still feeling the effects of the season’s sloth, so the routes have been conservatively flat, the pace languid. But the air filling the lungs feels good, the muscled fatigue is welcome. Because it means we’re actually out there, turning the pedals, keeping our heads down. Dodging divots.

Remembering a rocky start for a hometown hero

One of the special things about working in community journalism is being able to cover stories at a very intimate level, jumping in before they capture the attention of bigger, regional media.

In November, 2008, Kyle Turris was a young NHL prospect trying to earn a regular place on a team coached by the legendary Wayne Gretzky.

But the NewsLeader had been telling Turris’ story for years. We were there when he led his junior team, the Burnaby Express, to a national championship. We were with him when he packed up his bedroom in his family’s New Westminster home to embark on a collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin. We covered his selection to a team of Canadian all-stars to play a series of games against a team of Russian all-stars. We held the paper so we could get the story of his selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes; he was selected third overall, the highest position in the draft ever achieved by a graduate of a Tier II Junior A hockey league.

Turris played a year of collegiate hockey, then turned pro in the spring of 2008.

When the NHL released its 2008-09 schedule that summer, NewsLeader reporter Grant Granger and I circled Nov. 6 when the Coyotes would visit the Vancouver Canucks and Turris would be able to play his first game as an NHLer in front of his friends and family. It would be, we thought, a triumphant, feel-good story of a hometown hero making it big.

The Coyotes were in town a day early for their Thursday night game so Granger and I headed down to the team’s Wednesday morning practice; it would be a chance for him to talk to Turris in a more relaxed setting and for me to be able to get a folio of photos we could use for years to come, including some of him interacting with Gretzky, who had championed his selection by the Coyotes.

Game night, we worked the plaza outside GM Place, talked to some of Turris’ old high school buddies who were there to cheer on their former classmate.

Inside the arena, Granger ascended to the press box while I headed rinkside to get a few closeup photos of Turris warming up during the pre-game skate. As the players left the ice, I went to my accredited position at the mezzanine level to prepare for the game.

But when the lights dimmed and the teams returned to skate a few laps before the opening face off, Turris was not among them. He had been scratched from the Coyotes’ lineup. He would not get a chance to play for his friends and family. And our triumphant story took a dark turn.

Over the cellphone, Granger and I plotted our next move. We would connect partway through the first period, then head downstairs to see if we could find Turris and get some comment.

I half-heartedly shot a few frames of game action (after all, I didn’t get many chances to shoot NHL hockey in good light) but a mid-season game between Vancouver and Phoenix wasn’t my story.

As Granger and I descended a stairwell, heading to the dressing room area, we bumped into Kyle. He was wearing civvies and a heavy black overcoat. He clutched a sandwich in plastic wrap. He looked very sad, almost near tears.

Turris said he was going to look for his dad and graciously allowed us to tag along. Granger asked some questions, I shot a few photos. None of us was feeling particularly good about the situation.

When Turris found his dad in the concourse, they embraced. I shot a few frames and then retreated. For a kid on a winning streak of hockey success for most of his young life, this was a kick to the gut.

Sunday, Kyle Turris played his 500th NHL game. Most of them have been with the Ottawa Senators, where he was traded just over three years after that sad night in Vancouver.

New facility fails to lure lazy roadsters

Not even the novelty of a new home court was enough to fire the roadsters up for the second half of the season.

Only five players reported Sunday to the converted basketball court that was one of the few outdoor facilities completely clear of the snow and ice that has kept the road hockey season frozen for the past seven weeks. A week of warmer temperatures and heavy rain diminished the glacial sheet a bit, but the roadsters may be banished from their traditional home court for another week or two until the tundra has melted entirely.

In fact, conditions are so bad at the road hockey courts, they’ve been secured by bright yellow caution tape.

Colonel said the unfamiliarity of the new venue may have tempered the ardour of some of the roadsters to get their game in gear after the extended layoff.

“I think people like what’s normal and comfortable for them,” said the veteran centreman. “I’d say our guys aren’t super good at being outside their comfort zone.”

Nouvelle Guy, who supplied the nets that converted the basketball court to a hockey venue, said he was discouraged by the ambivalence of his fellow roadsters.

“It’s pretty disappointing,” said the versatile veteran. “I expected there would be more people out here, but it is what it is.”

The new facility presented some challenges. While it’s mostly enclosed, the surrounding fence is much lower, allowing more balls to escape play. And the fencing doesn’t quite reach the ground so low rollers had a tendency to slip beyond the game.

But, said the Colonel, it was a more than adequate alternative.

“It’s a nice clear court,” said the feisty forward. “The surface is smooth. It’s a lot of fun running around here today.”

That exercise was a major motivator for Nouvelle Guy.

“It’s been really tough,” said the power forward. “I’ve been wanting to get out on the court. It’s one of the things I love to do.”

The mid-season break that has now stretched to seven weeks for some roadsters is unprecedented. And that could have serious implications as players begin to gear their game for the climactic Stanley Stick championship series in April.

“People are fatter,” said Colonel of the season’s slothful pause. “People don’t quite grasp it’s a lot easier to put a few pounds on than to take a few pounds off.”

Playing consistently keeps players sharp, hones their timing and playmaking, said the veteran. Those skills diminish quickly.

“You lose your hands, you lose your ball skills,” said Colonel, who struggled with some of his deke moves during Sunday’s half-court scrimmage. “It’s best for everyone to be out playing the game.”

The previous story was first published on my weekly road hockey blog, roadhockey.net

Roadsters dig out before digging in

Twizzler scored four times to become the first, and most unlikely, winner of the inaugural Shrimp Ring Shootout on Sunday.

The shotstopping stalwart was given a rare reprieve from his armour of heavy leg pads as the competition required only one goalie; he took full advantage, ripping bullets past his rearguard rival, Joker, high into the top corner, over his glove and through the five hole. It was a remarkable offensive effort against some of the game’s top snipers including Doo, Lak Attack and Scooby, who was making his first appearance at the courts in more than a year.

That the Shootout occurred at all was a testimony of the roadsters’ resolve to restart the season after a five week hiatus brought on by extended wintry weather.

“This is the week we were going to get back to playing hockey and you have to take a stand that you’re not going to let anything stand in your way,” said Doo during a break from the arduous effort to chip and shovel away more than a foot of hardened, compacted snow and ice.

It may have been the worst conditions the roadsters have ever encountered at the concrete courts said Lak Attack. A snowfall early in December wasn’t cleared before a thaw and subsequent freeze encased the concrete surface in ice and frozen slush. More snow piled on over the holiday hiatus that was compacted when the neighbouring school reopened.

“This is something we’ve never seen,” said the veteran who’s participated in numerous shovel brigades over his long career. “The amount of snow, and the ice underneath; there’s a lot of challenges.”

But the roadsters wered undeterred. Every chunk of snow or block of ice heaved to the side felt like a victory, said Doo.

“They’re doing something impossible. It’s back-breaking labour for a game that we’re probably not even going to be able to play.”

That realization was apparent more than an hour into the clearing effort as the accumulated snow had been removed from only a third of the court, and a thick layer of hard ice still remained.

The shoot out contest may not have had the competitive fire of a regular game, but for the roadsters who survived Sunday’s shovelling brigade it still felt like victory.

“It’s great to see,” said Doo. “This is probably helpful for people’s fitness.”

“This is a building block of how badly the guys want to play,” said Lak Attack. “It builds character for the guys… and that’s good for the rest of the season.”

This story was originally published in my road hockey blog, roadhockey.net

Photographing fiction

Shooting sports successfully usually demands some level of vague familiarity with the rules and flow of play. Knowing how a sport works can help you anticipate the action, point your lens at the right area of the field, stand in the proper place.

But what if a sport exists entirely in fiction?

Quidditch is a sport played by some of the characters in the Harry Potter novels. It’s a fantastical amalgam of tag, capture the flag, soccer and rugby played in mid-air by wizards flying magical broomsticks.

Some enthusiasts, mostly from university campuses, have brought the game down to earth and compete in actual leagues and championship tournaments.

In the spring of 2015, the Canadian Quidditch championship landed in Burnaby.

While I’ve seen the Harry Potter movies, I really had no idea what to expect of this real-life version of the fictional sport. Let alone how to shoot it.

But once I got over the odd sight of athletes running around with a “broomstick” between their legs, the patterns and purpose of the players quickly became clear. So did their passion.

And that’s always a recipe for good photos. Even when you have no idea what is going on.